Growth as the price of stability has enabled the pressing question of justice and equity to be deferred, since even if the rich are getting obscenely rich, at least all have the promise of betterment in a rising economy. But take away the expectation of growth, and the disparities of wealth become more pressingly obvious.
The same effect is realised when growth is confined to the rich. When Hosni Mubarak become Egyptian president in 1981, about twenty percent of the population lived on less than US$2 per day. After three decades during which Egypt experienced annual economic growth rates of seven per cent or more, at the time of the revolution, about forty percent lived on less than US$2 per day. There had been extraordinary growth, but the benefits went to the elite without "trickling down".
During those same three decades, the income of the bottom 90% of US workers has remained flat while that of the top 10% has skyrocketed. At the same time, the rich have successfully shifted the tax burden onto the rest. Again, the benefits of growth have not been a larger pie to be shared amongst all, but have increasingly lined the pockets of the most powerful, multiplying their power.
But not everywhere has the same story. China's boom has seen hundreds of millions move out of absolute poverty. Indeed, never before have so many escaped the burdens of grinding need in such a short space of time. Nonetheless, it has again been the richest who have benefitted the most and inequality in China is higher than anytime since the revolution. And political stability may well require this growth to continue.
If the prospect of growth becomes dim (as I think it is over the next few decades), then the question of justice must come to the fore. Whether this occurs through violent and unpredictable revolution or through reform is largely the choice of each society. Few seem to be choosing the latter, however. Indeed, globally, the rich are getting richer and only seem more intent than ever to remain in control of the reins of power. That is the path of violence, not that I am advocating or condoning it.
Of course, the absolutely poor deserve the right to develop their basic economy to a level required for the possibility of living a humane life. This is nowhere near present levels of western consumption, and nations that are well above this level have a moral duty to pursue justice through planned de-growth, or rather, pursuing things that are better than growth. It is quite possible to live a more human life while (indeed often through) embracing less. A simpler lifestyle is a gift to oneself as well as one's global neighbour.
Finally, it bears repetition: the pursuit of endless growth is increasingly terrible for ecology, which after all, owns the global economy. Growth as we currently know it likely cannot continue for more than a few more decades (at best) without so severely undermining the ecological health of the planet that the economic costs of ecological degradation overwhelm any further growth. If we want to live in a stable society, let us throw off the love of money, that poisonous stimulant slowly killing us all.